Finding redemption & beauty on North Carolina’s death row

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Last week, I went to visit a man who has lived on North Carolina death row for 19 years. We talked about books and writing and art. He told me about the two plants he dug up from the prison yard and now keeps in his cell.

Each morning, he moves them into a patch of light near the window. He plays classical music, because he read that it helps plants grow. As he tends to them, he thinks of his grandmother. He used to tell her she was crazy to talk to her plants. Now, he’s past 50, about the age his grandmother was in his memory, talking to his own plants on death row.

He reminded me that our work to end the death penalty isn’t just theoretical. It’s about believing in the possibility of every human life. Bryan Stevenson is right: People are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

We’ve now gone 13 years without an execution in North Carolina, but the death penalty is still a threat. People are still being tried capitally, and after two years without any new death sentences, we had three this year in North Carolina. Our state continues to have one of the nation’s largest death rows – 143 men and women living under death sentences.

But this year was also full of bright spots that give us hope. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to take on the legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and lawyers for six death row prisoners made historic arguments exposing the ways that race infects the death penalty. Polling, both in North Carolina and nationally, showed that a clear majority of people now prefer alternatives to capital punishment over executions. Another innocent person, once sentenced to death, was exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina. And Henry McCollum, who was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner when he was exonerated in 2014, joined our Coalition and began attending meetings.

Exonerated North Carolina death row prisoner Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

As we end 2019, let’s celebrate our victories and renew our commitment. Let’s also remember who we’re fighting for: People who have caused great pain but still have something to give. People who sometimes find redemption even in the darkest places.

When you think of death row, think of the man I saw last week. Sitting on the other side of thick glass and bars, he told me a story.

Earlier this year, he was outside for rec time when a ladybug landed on his arm. He spent the next hour watching it crawl on his shirt, marveling at a tiny spot of beauty in a world of razor wire and armed guards. When it was time to go inside, another prisoner asked if he would take it inside and make it a pet. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to take anything into prison.” He let it fly away.

He is keenly aware of his mistakes and how much he’s taken from others. He felt he deserved worse when the judge pronounced his death sentence.

In the years since, the state has done its best to take everything from him. But he is still here. Day by day, he is figuring out how to live on death row – and how to nurture what he can.

Please help nurture justice and hope in 2020 by making a year-end contribution to the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Your donation will ensure that North Carolina never again executes a human being. Donate here.

—Kristin Collins, Dec. 17, 2019